Letter from the orphanage

It has been a while, a long while for me, since I have written anything here.  I hope you will forgive my inconsistency.  I haven’t felt like writing, or painting, occupied with coming to grips with the changing horizons of my life.

In a way, the construct I have been inhabiting for so long has come down around me, crumbling into itself as the new one goes up simultaneously.  Everything is a little different, a little skewed, but in many ways there is more elbow room.   I can’t really touch the walls yet, as I reach out and twiddle my fingertips, and it is scary, but full of intriguing  possibilities.   I will grow into it and learn to inhabit the space, even make a cup of tea here eventually, snuggling up with my own autobiography.  I hope it is a satisfying read.

I am an orphan, as is my sister.  I am now “the old folks.”   I am the oldest  generation in the family, having reluctantly clambered to the highest rung on the responsibility ladder.  I have lost both of my parents in a whirlwind few months, both to cancer.  My mother succumbed to a quick and relatively painless but inescapable pancreatic beast, and my father lost  the last skirmish in a long war with skin cancer,  an insistent mass of flesh termites which  niggled away at him until he couldn’t hold it off any longer.

People say, “We understand how devastating it is to lose both your parents together like this.”  And it is, but it is also a blessing.  Better to choke down the poison in a concentrated draught, all in a gulp, and avoid having to savor it.   My sister and I are still spitting often, but  preparing to enjoy some  light and fruity wine as well.  After.

My mother always said, “Oh Lord, I feel sorry for you all having to deal with all my stuff!”   She did have hundreds of  books, closets full  of clothes, empty flower vases, and endless  tablecloths.   But the biggest job, one that we possibly will never finish, is looking through the papers, personal notes and letters, many of which  she inherited from her parents and grandparents.  My father, too, had boxes of memorabilia,  scraps of the 1920′s and 30′s, and clippings from magazines.  He saved the newspaper front pages for major events from Pearl Harbor to Nixon’s resignation!   It is a sparkling treasure trove of knowledge, invaluable and irreplaceable.    At the same time its presence is enormously annoying,  hulking sullenly in closets, boxes perched accusingly on shelves, food for the silverfish.   And what of my own offspring, and theirs;  will the family be so hindered by its written history that it will eventually disappear, suffocated  in a papery pit?   Would the touchdown of a tornado be a blessing in disguise?  And yet…and yet I wish that they had written more, told us more.  The things we might never hear about are now official:  we will never know.

My father left quite a library of information and scholarly studies behind, in the physical sense as well as metaphorically.  He was so much more productive than I ever realized, and the recognition of his colleagues continues unabated.  I am  mourning  the loss of contact with all things paleontological, the dusty-shelved and boney  foundation of my life-view.  It is still there, but muted.  I know instinctively to grasp it gently, as too strong a grip on  it will weaken its hold on me.   It is science to scientists, but alchemy and poetry to me.  I am ignorant of  the study of dinosaurs,  but eternally captivated by the smell of them.

My mother was considerate about her legacy, and she left us a handwritten biography which speaks for itself.  It was a full-circle  life, and it was a good one.  Every woman dreads becoming too much like her mother, doesn’t she?   I am used to moments of revelation, realizing that I am so much like my mother, becoming more like her, like it or not!     These moments  are sweeter now;  I am pleased that this is so.   I am not apt to become so much like my father, but I am made of bits and pieces of him, and they pop and fizzle  and glow at the oddest moments.   I am myself thanks to my parents;  the most earthshaking banality anyone ever came up with.   They live on, I live on, and my kids will live on, taking the crowd of yammering DNA with us through time.

And so I know now, after the funerals, the memorials, the thoughtful notes in the mail, that my parents were even more appreciated in the community than I thought.   They were well-loved, they were complicated, they were the most intelligent, exasperating, considerate  and  responsible  people, and they are gone.    I never imagined that I would miss them so fiercely.

Marietta5

Mama and me, 1957  (family photo)

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6 comments on “Letter from the orphanage

  1. Ellen Langner Ward says:

    Dear Sandra, thank-you for writing so beautifully and poignantly about such an intimate experience. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank-you for sharing not only your thoughts and feelings, but also the beautiful photo.

  2. Thank you, Ellen. My sister, then about three, was also in that photo session, staring daggers at me from my mother’s knee. She seems to have gotten over it. Mostly!

    • Ellen Langner Ward says:

      It’s a good thing there are no photos documenting my response to baby brothers Stuart and then Howard as they arrived home! But yes, I learned to love them dearly.

  3. Tom Welch says:

    Sandra,
    That was wonderfully written. I know exactly what you mean about that font of information being shut off irrevocably. There were so many questions I should have asked, or asked and have now forgotten myself.

  4. Bella says:

    Sandra, I’m so sorry for your loss. My father passed away two years ago and it feels like yesterday. Nothing changes. It’s as if time stood still and I’m still waiting to hear his voice when I call on the phone. I don’t think I could survive the loss of both parents, although now that I read your beautifully eloquent words, I can see why it might seem easier to process the loss of both a mother and a father. I think I would take comfort in the thought that they are now together once again. Thank you for this poignant and thought provoking post.

  5. Thanks, Bella, thanks Tom. It is something each of us (if we are lucky and things go according to plan) has to deal with in this life. My mom always said, “You get in the river and swim a while, then you climb out again.” That sounds OK to me!

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